Breaking down the Cubs' bullpen landscape

January 18th, 2023

CHICAGO -- Finding late-inning relievers via cost-effective contracts has been a staple of the Cubs' offseason operations in recent years. It was a goal again for the club this offseason, given the number of question marks hovering over the bullpen.

"That's something we've done well," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention last weekend. "This free-agent market made it a lot more difficult."

Less than a month out from the start of Spring Training, Chicago's lone acquisition on that particular front has been veteran righty . While the Cubs continue to monitor a market with a few intriguing names available, this increasingly looks like a situation to be solved internally.

Boxberger signed a one-year deal worth $2.8 million guaranteed, which is split between a $2 million base salary for 2023 and an $800,000 buyout of a mutual option ($5 million) for '24. It is the kind of deal that the Cubs have used in recent seasons to bring in names like , , , and .

Each of those players joined the Cubs, experienced a level of success and were then flipped at a Trade Deadline as the North Siders fell out of contention and shifted the focus to the future. They have all since hit the open market and earned larger salaries with other clubs.

"When you look at the cost on some of the players that we were able to do that on, it was really low," Hoyer said. "It wasn't low risk, but low stakes, as far as what we were paying those guys. And I do think that the by buy-low reliever market, so to speak, has been a lot higher than in the past. So, I think that it's made that job difficult.

"But all that said, I mean, really, we have to be able to develop our own relievers. Honestly, I'd love an offseason where we don't have to sign any relievers. That means we have a ton of arms and we just go with what we have internally. That's a place that you love to have kind of efficiency."

Here is a breakdown of the Cubs' current bullpen landscape:

• The rotation has four arms (, , and ) locked in, with veteran ' timetable for return from a shoulder issue potentially extending into April or May. That means a fifth job will be available this spring.

• Right-handers , and will enter camp as multi-inning options for either the rotation or bullpen. Prospects and will also be given a look, due to their success as starters in the second half.

• When the smoke clears on the back of the rotation, the bullpen will gain at least two of those multi-inning arms. From there, the Cubs will have virtual locks in the bullpen with righty , lefty Brandon Hughes and Boxberger.

• Looking at the current 40-man roster, the Cubs will then have bullpen candidates in , Ryan Jensen, , and . Behind that group, there will be the list of non-roster invitees to consider.

"You're going to have injuries. You're going to have poor performances," Hoyer said. "We're getting more depth. The bottom of our 40-man roster is a lot better than it has been. I think that the next guys off it are really talented and, hopefully, that depth will really help us."

To that last point, the Cubs claimed Merryweather on Tuesday and designated hard-throwing righty Manuel Rodríguez for assignment. Righty , who had a 2.87 ERA as a multi-inning reliever last year, was also designated for assignment recently to add first baseman to the roster.

Another tough roster decision will loom when the Cubs officially announce the addition of free-agent first baseman . And the moves will get even more complicated if Chicago does go out and adds another reliever (The Athletic recently reported the team's interest in Chafin and Matt Moore).

"You never feel totally comfortable with [the bullpen], just given the volatility of it," Hoyer said. "Are we looking to add guys? Yes, but I do feel comfortable in that we're getting more and more [to a place where] we have guys that can fill that role.

"My goal, my hope, is that over the next two to three years, that those guys are all coming out of our system. That's the real goal, is to provide great stuff in the bullpen that's also coming, and young guys with options that are that are less expensive, and that's really what we want to develop."